Dirk Powell / Tim O’Brien / John Herrmann – Station Inn (Nashville, TN)
Old-time music mostly returns to the present with a patina of dust, accumulated either inside the windowless conservatory or layering the worn 78s (and inevitably stilted performances) that preserve it. Too often it is forgotten that these songs were once played in parlors where people danced and drank and made loud noises at inappropriate intervals.
Charles Frazier’s first published novel, Cold Mountain, sought, in part, to breath life back into the lives of the people who might have sat and danced in those lantern-lit rooms, despite the hardships of the Civil War and of rural life in general. Dirk Powell, Tim O’Brien and John Herrmann, established musicians with varying relationships to 19th-century music, seized upon the musical thread running through Cold Mountain and recorded Songs From The Mountain, built around traditional numbers mentioned and freshly composed songs inspired by the text. In so doing they, too, brought the breath of daily life back into the music.
Conflicting schedules leave the trio with few opportunities actually to play these songs in public (O’Brien, for example, just came off the road with Steve Earle). Seated across the front of the Station Inn’s small stage, partly obscured by the inevitable mike stands, the three cobbled together two sets of casually engaging music.
Songs From The Mountain provided the natural center to the evening, with O’Brien concentrating on guitar and vocals, Powell alternating between fiddle and banjo, and Herrmann playing what looked to be a fretless banjo and chiming in on vocals. The songs had a spontaneous (which is not quite to say unrehearsed) quality, and the players clearly enjoyed each other’s company.
Good thing, for the club was at best half full, and the audience far too polite to inspire excellence from the stage. O’Brien, a multi-instrumentalist and established songwriter, is an odd but effective singer, able to drop powerful, flatted blue notes into a song without visible effort or emotion. Still, on this night, ringing standards such as “Raleigh And Spencer” or “Mole In The Ground” didn’t quite soar.
As the evening wore on it became clear that the trio had less common ground than one might have guessed. Mountain songs were interposed among pieces from Powell’s next solo record, or from O’Brien’s large catalog of recorded works. In both cases, the songs were appropriate to time and place, but Herrmann mostly sat them out, just nodding in time, smiling faintly. Like the rest of us.